Annie Dillard — Suburban Pilgrim

For years I have worshipped Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer-prize winning meditation on nature written back in the 1970’s.  I keep a copy of it on my Kindle, and whenever the world feels too much with me, I like to retreat into a few of its pages.  Her descriptions of giant water bugs and mating wood ducks, intertwined with questions of creation and invocations of the great philosophers and scientists, are beautiful and strange and calming.


Dillard was living near Roanoke, Virginia, at the time she wrote it, and Pilgrim gives the impression that it was a solitary existence, that she was living in a secluded cabin in the woods, like Thoreau or Muir, spending her days trekking along the streams and through the fields without much human contact.

But no.

When I discovered that this was not true, when I discovered that Dillard was living in an ordinary suburban house with her husband when she wrote Pilgrim, I felt betrayed.  And part of me still feels it is a deception. To describe the wonder of the praying mantis egg cases but fail to mention that they exist in the shadow of a 1960’s brick rambler seems, at best, disingenuous.

Earlier this year The Atlantic published a piece about this revelation that the wildness in Pilgrim was really an illusion deliberately created by Dillard.  The article gives some interesting insights into Dillard’s motivations for creating this illusion.  Turns out she was afraid that her book would not make it into the the canon of wilderness literature if she didn’t portray herself as the archetypal solitary wanderer, or if she revealed that her surroundings were blemished by other human beings.  Heck, she was also worried that the American public wouldn’t accept a wilderness narrative written by a woman, but happily that turned out not to be true.

Here is an excerpt from the Atlantic article describing Dillard’s reaction to discovering how her readers perceived Pilgrim:

“Even still, [Dillard] said, before publishing Pilgrim she hadn’t realized how wild she’d made the valley seem. “I didn’t say, ‘I walked by the suburban brick houses,’” she told me. “Why would I say that to the reader? But when I saw that reviewers were acting like it was the wilderness, I said, ‘Oh, shit.’

Please.  I have a hard time believing that a writer as shrewd as Dillard wouldn’t realize exactly what she was doing when she wrote the book.

Anyway, my favorite passage from the article is this one, which reminds us that our wanderings through suburbia CAN be as awe-inspiring as Dillard’s were in Pilgrim if we take the time to look:

“But in many ways, her mundane surroundings make her achievement even more impressive. Other writers have hunted down awe-inspiring experiences in far-flung places: on the Pacific Crest Trail, in the wilds of Arches National Park, or among the glaciers of Southeast Alaska. But Dillard walked around her own neighborhood and captured a world that was buzzing with wonders and horrors.”

Yes, here in suburbia there is too much lawn, there are leaf blowers, plastic wishing wells, and basketball courts.

There are giant inflatable snowmen.

I guess forty years ago Dillard felt she had to pretend those things didn’t exist in order to write about the natural wonders among them.

Here’s hoping times have changed and that we now understand that the real illusion is the idea that all wilderness is “out there” and not (to paraphrase Thoreau) right under our feet.  Here’s hoping we can all recognize the wildness and wonder even in our suburban wanderings.

P.S.  Here is an excellent blog post by David Ryan which includes pictures of Tinker Creek and the neighborhood in which Dillard wandered.

Butterflies in Maryland

First a few species that are native to the DC area, including the larval host plant(s) for the species. 

Denaus plexippus – Monarch.  Milkweed spp.


Battus philenor – Pipevine Swallowtail.  Aristolochia species and Virginia Snakeroot.


Polygonia interrogationis – Question Mark.  Elm, Hackberry, Nettles, False Nettles.

QuestionMark (2)

Question Mark — top of wings visible while it’s nectaring.


Monarch chrysalises


Now for some exotic species:

Morpho peleides – Blue Morpho (Mexico to Colombia & Venezuela, Trinidad)

The back of the wings are electric blue, but the darn thing hardly ever opens them.


Doleschallia bisaltide – Autumn Leaf  (India, Malaysia to Phillipines, Australia)


Idea leuconoe – Paper Kite (Phillipines to Borneo, Taiwan)


Heliconius erato – Small Postman (s. USA to Paraguay)


Postman (2)

Dryas iulia – Julia Longwing (s. USA to Brazil; West Indies)


Hamadryas feronia – Grey Cracker (s. USA to Brazil)  <— I think


Papilio memnon – Great Mormon, male (Sri Lanka & India to s. China & Malaysia) below

and Heliconius hecale – Golden Helicon (Mexico to Peruvian Amazon) above


tattered Julia Longwing with Canna flower

DSC_1854 (2)

I couldn’t identify this one:

DSC_1825 (2)

or this one:

DSC_1782 (2)

Cethosia biblis – Common Lacewing (Nepal & China to Malaya, Thailand, Phillipines)


Blue Morpho


Greta oto – Costa Rica Clearwing (Mexico to Panama)


These photos were taken in August 2015 at the fantastic Brookside Gardens in Maryland, in the Wings of Fancy exhibit, which is open until October 2015.

Thanks to Corey Hilz for hosting a photography class at the site.

Hillwood Museum Gardens

One of the few DC area gardens that I had never visited were those at the Hillwood Estate, former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, daughter of the famed cereal baron.

Post bought the house in 1955 and used it to display her vast collection of Russian and French decorative art.  She had spent time in Russia when the communists were in the midst of burning churches and aristocratic homes and selling off all the bling.   Post was able to pick up all kinds of incredible sacred and decorative art on the cheap, and she was nice enough to turn her estate into a museum when she died.


If you enjoy looking at room upon room of fancy china, elegant vases, exquisite furniture and the like, you will love touring the house (suggested donations of $18 when you enter.)  But of course I was eager to get out into the 13 acres of gardens which surrounded it.  You will see that Post didn’t skimp on the outdoor spaces either.

Here’s a little tour, starting with the cutting garden:



Nice shade combo:



Lush borders:



French Parterre:


Some seductive paths:




Japanese Garden, one of the highlights:



The American flag kinda ruins the gestalt in this one but oh well:






A satisfied denizen of the Japanese garden:


Pet Cemetery:


Dacha (Russian Country House):



Shed Makeover

My shed two weeks ago.

My shed today.

 I love paint!

High Maintenance Plants & People

Behold my Camellia ‘Niccio’s Bella Rossa’:


My li’l camellia cowers in the cold and snow.

Sad, right? Let me tell you the story of this plant. I spotted her a few years ago at the garden center – in bloom – and was immediately smitten. Anxiously, I checked the tag. Zone 8, it said. Prefers acid soil. I can make it work, I thought, disregarding my alkaline soil and Zone 7 location. I have that little protected area in the side yard by the fence. It doesn’t get below 10 degrees here that often. Just because that other camellia I planted a few years ago died almost immediately doesn’t mean this one will, too.

And on and on with the rationalizing. Sixty dollars later and the sweet little thing was in my passenger seat and on her way to the inevitable slow demise (but hopefully not!) in my garden.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we buy these precious, high-maintenance plants that we know will require constant coddling and tending?

I mean, I consider myself a very practical person. I drive an old Honda. I’ve pretty much abandoned make-up and jewelry. I’d rather eat meatloaf than prime rib, rather walk my dog than play golf. I like things to be easy, sensible, and reliable.

I generally try to surround myself with easy people, too. “Low-maintenance” people who pay their bills and show up to work every day. People who don’t have giant mood swings, constant hurt feelings, or mysterious ailments and traumas. Much better to have folks in your life who don’t need deadheading, dividing, or staking, who will perform faithfully for you year after year, without your having to ask.

So why do I lust after camellias? It really doesn’t make sense. I know deep down my gardening life would be easier and more sanguine if I would just stick to the hostas, carex, sedums, and phlox that are properly suited to my Black Walnutty Northern Virginia garden. Why would I go through all the effort and heartache of inviting an acid-loving denizen of the Deep South into my life, yet again?

I mean, I should have learned my lesson with Camellia ‘Yuletide’ back in ’09, right? Talk about heartache. I first spied ‘Yuletide’ when I worked at the garden center during the fall of that year. I was transporting some plants in a little electric truck to one of the back lots when I suddenly slammed on the brakes. Placed serendipitously together in one of the overflow beds was a small Camellia ‘Yuletide’, in full bloom, flanked by a couple of large nandinas heavy with crimson fruit. This simple combination was a stunning vision in red! My heart raced.

That same week, I attempted to recreate the vignette in my backyard. I spent about two hours digging a wide, shallow hole with a pedestal of carefully amended soil on which to perch the camellia, as my internet research had advised. I backfilled a third of the way, lightly pressed, and watered. Repeated three times. Carefully mulched. Meanwhile, I am sure the viburnum sitting a few feet away was like, “this is some bullshit. She just opened a wedge in the ground and shoved me in. Pfffft.”

Alas, by spring it was clear that ‘Yuletide’ was not merry. I would check it each day, and each day it seemed yet another branch had succumbed to the dreaded “dieback.” Heartbreak! I tore the plant out and promised myself I would never do it again — with the same sense of hurt betrayal that I swore to myself years ago that I’d never date another Texan.

And yet here I am with another camellia. And here I am again with the fussing and anxiety. I planted ‘Bella Rossa’ far away from my black walnuts, so (fingers crossed) no dieback yet. Still, all week the forecast calls for temps below 10 degrees, so I rummage through the basement for an old fleece blanket and some rope. I wrap Bella up carefully to protect the beautiful plump buds that might (with luck) open into exquisite fully double blooms the color of a child’s flushed cheek.

I know deep down that’s a pretty big “might.” And part of me feels ridiculous for doting on a plant this way. Most of the time I choose sensible plants that are native to the area or otherwise suited to my environs. Toughness and adaptability – in plants as well as people – are the qualities I find most beautiful of all.

Still, each day I visit ‘Bella Rossa’ and tend to her health, hoping for a few enchanting blooms come March. See, sometimes high maintenance is worth it. I guess we’re all high maintenance sometimes, and where would we be if we never took a chance on those who required a little extra care?

Camellia 'Nuccio's Bella Rossa' from

Camellia ‘Nuccio’s Bella Rossa’ from

Country Time

Like many of you, every once in awhile I fantasize about living in the country.  I’m pretty sure that if I actually lived in the country, I might turn into a version of Jack Torrance from The Shining and after a couple months of winter start chasing my family around with an ax for lack of nearby amenities. 

But thankfully, every now and then it’s possible to get a taste of the country life without actually committing to it.  Such was the case a couple of weeks ago, when my mother’s friend Bobbi invited us out to her farm near Harrisonburg, VA for the day. 

She has a charming turn of the century farmhouse, adorned inside and out with the coolest old farm equipment and tools….(pics by my sister Karen)Bobbie's house at the Busy B Farm

My son and I played hide and seek in her awesome barn, which is packed with rustic farm paraphernalia…

Tools in the barn

Baskets strung up for the Barn Sale

Cool sign with old bicycle in the barn

Lanterns in the barn

Jars in the barn

and as for garden ornament, how about a wheel wall?  I didn’t know I wanted one of these until I saw Bobbi’s…

Fence of wheels

Wouldn’t it be great to have the kind of property where an antique Ford pick up looks right at home in the front yard?

The Old Ford

everywhere you turn, you are reminded of simpler times, of the days before texting, tweeting, and twerking…

Farm equipment

Bicycle leaning against the shed

Sign taking you into the Busy B Farm

There is even a delightful stream running through her property, where we skipped stones and looked for interesting rocks…

busy b farm-1812

More wheels…Bobbi was kind enough to let me take a couple of wheels home with me!

Just  a cool sign

One of the wheels Bobbi gave me, at home in my suburban garden…


Yes indeed…for me, full time country life = mental illness.  But one beautiful May day in the country = mental health.

View from the end of lane and the house at Busy B

Signs You Spent Too Much at the Garden Center (Again)

1. You just “swung by” to get some mulch but then somehow all this wound up in your car, too.


How did all these plants get here?

2. When the cashier announces the total, you realize it’s the same amount that Oxfam’s fundraising letter said would feed an entire African village for a month.

3. You have trouble shifting gears on the way home because you have a hardy banana plant wedged diagonally in front of the passengers seat.  Also, your tiny car is so packed with plants you find pollen in your ears when you get home.

4. Your 8-year-old, who has accompanied you and overhears the total, announces that he is going to “tell Dad” how much you spent when he gets home.

5. You don’t think you’ve spent more on fabulous container plants this month than on food for your family, but you’re not really sure.

Gardens & Sights of Waterford, VA

Waterford, VA, is a tiny historical town in western Loudoun County, about 90 minutes from Washington, DC.  The town consists of just a few streets, a post office, an old mill, schoolhouse, and a few dozen houses built in the 18th and 19th century, now lovingly cared for by their current owners.

This weekend I was lucky enough to have access to some of the houses and gardens in a photography class I took with my sister for a birthday present.  I still don’t know what 90% of the functions do on my camera, but here are some of my better shots:

































































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